ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

He made Richard Nixon sing. He won a Pulitzer Prize for an orchestral work about 9/11. His music is a concert hall staple. And now, American composer John Adams has written an autobiography. It's called "Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life." Jeff Lunden has this profile.

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JEFF LUNDEN: There probably isn't a major symphony orchestra in the United States or abroad that hasn't played the music of John Adams. Critic Alex Ross of The New Yorker thinks he knows the reason why.

Mr. ALEX ROSS (Critic, The New Yorker): He has a voice, and I think his music is instantly recognizable after only a few bars. And this is quite difficult to achieve and also to sustain over a career of several decades without repeating oneself.

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LUNDEN: How John Adams found that voice and developed it is the subject of his new autobiography. The composer grew up in Concord, New Hampshire and took clarinet lessons from his father. He quickly showed great skill and as a teenager played with orchestras and bands around his hometown, including one which performed in the state mental hospital.

Mr. JOHN ADAMS (Composer, Author, "Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life"): And all of our concerts were played before an audience of several hundred severely disabled mental patients. And it was an absolutely life-forming, imprinting experience for me because you just have to imagine this out-of-tune community orchestra hacking away at the Schubert "Unfinished Symphony," and these patients in tears, just profoundly emotional and moved by the music they were hearing. It's a lesson I took with me for the rest of my life.

LUNDEN: But the kind of music that spoke directly to most audiences wasn't what was being taught in academic circles when Adams attended Harvard in the late 1960s. Atonality was all the rage, and John Adams says that the music was pretty grim.

Mr. ADAMS: Basically, the language, the materials of music were being systematically atomized and fractured just to see how far the envelope could be pushed. And I was uncomfortable with it. I loved rock. I loved jazz. I loved Sibelius. I loved Beethoven. And that's part of the reason I decided to leave the East Coast. And instead of going to Europe, I went west.

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LUNDEN: Adams moved to the San Francisco Bay area and after a period of avant-garde exploration, found himself drawn to a new style of music being created by a group of young composers, among them Philip Glass and Steve Reich. It was called minimalism.

Mr. ADAMS: And I felt that minimalism was a real kind of a way out of this terrible cul de sac that contemporary music had gotten itself into. It was a style that embraced tonality, embraced regular rhythm and pulse but at the same time was absolutely new and fresh. I felt that I could take that language somewhat in the same way, let's say, that Picasso took cubism and use it as a jumping-off point for an expression that was much more varied and much more dramatic.

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LUNDEN: Unlike Philip Glass and Steve Reich, who, like rock stars, created ensembles to play their music, John Adams found himself drawn to the orchestra. And his band was the San Francisco Symphony, where he was composer-in-residence.

Mr. ADAMS: I grew up playing in orchestras, listening to orchestra music. I loved it. I speak the orchestra. I mean, it is my natural way of thinking, musically.

LUNDEN: Opera director Peter Sellars heard in Adams' music the kind of drama and color that would work on the operatic stage. And he had an idea he thought would be perfect for Adams. It was called, "Nixon in China."

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Mr. PETER SELLARS (Opera Director, San Francisco): "Nixon in China" introduced the world to a great opera composer, both the kind of seriousness of that opening chorus in depth of feeling as the people wait in the pre-dawn to hear what their rulers are going to say, as well as, you know, the comic turns. You know, Nixon's opening "News" aria. Not since Rossini has this kind of comic touch just lit up the stage.

(Soundbite of opera "Nixon in China")

LUNDEN: Adams' operas have tackled a range of topics, from terrorism in "The Death of Klinghoffer," to the birth of the atom bomb in "Doctor Atomic," which receives its Metropolitan Opera premiere on October 13th.

Mr. ADAMS: What I love about writing for the stage is that I'm prodded to move out of myself to find a way to describe something, to find a way to describe Air Force One as it lands on the tarmac in Peking or to musically describe the New Mexico desert in the minutes before the world's first atomic bomb is going to be detonated.

(Soundbite of opera "Doctor Atomic")

LUNDEN: "Batter my Heart," the setting of John Donne's sonnets sung by the character of nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer in "Doctor Atomic." One reason critic Alex Ross finds Adams' music so appealing is that the composer doesn't shy away from emotion.

Mr. ADAMS: There's no caution there. There's no sort of intellectual jockeying for position. He just seems to just put it out there and not worry about the correctness of these sounds. They just kind of well up in him, and he's just not afraid to put them down on paper.

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LUNDEN: John Adams says, from the time he was a kid, his dream was not just to compose, but to conduct orchestras. And increasingly, he's been living that dream.

Mr. ADAMS: It feeds my creative sources. It keeps me in touch with the realities of making music, and it also reminds me, in the most vivid way possible, that music is fundamentally an art of feeling. And the feeling that transmits from the stage to the audience is really what it's all about.

LUNDEN: John Adams' autobiography, "Hallelujah Junction," along with an accompanying two CDs set of his music comes out on Tuesday. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

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